My wife and I sat silently in the front seat. In the rearview mirror, we watched our son Tim, a new college kid, walk away without looking back. We had moved him into the dorm and had said our goodbyes. After 18 years of parenting, we were all entering a new season of life.
Exciting. Scary. Surreal. For him, and for us.
But the transition was easier than we expected, even though it took a toll on our emotions. We missed his clever comments and his energy at night. We missed his laughter. Mostly, we missed his presence.
Over the next few days, we started noticing things that were … different. We’d clean the bathroom, and it would stay clean. The fridge would stay full. Tim’s room was eerily empty, but it was clean, which made the whole house feel more organized.
Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, I thought. My wife and I quickly got used to this new, quiet season. Enjoyed it, actually.
Welcome your college kid home
But in a few months, Tim would be coming home for Christmas. We couldn’t wait to see him, but we wondered how he would feel about coming home, and how we would feel about him being there. Would our new college kid be different? We didn’t know. Would there be tension between us? It was hard to tell. Would we be irritated if his old habits came back with him? Probably we would.
When Tim did return, our expectations were high. So were his. And we were all disappointed. We had expected him to read our minds, and he had expected us to know his.
Here’s what we discovered: Creating an intentional framework for our college kids’ visits can help everyone have a more enjoyable experience. A framework provides structure, but also allows for flexibility. Take, for example, a house with a master bedroom and two additional bedrooms. One owner will put kids in each room, while another might use one as a home office. Likewise, having a well-designed framework for relationship during holidays and summer breaks allows for healthy boundaries while allowing flexibility. To build that framework, we must establish ground rules and communicate those rules clearly before the kids return.
That may create some conflict. When the kids lived at home, you made the rules. Now, they’ve experienced a taste of independence. For months, they’ve decided when to wake up and go to bed, what and when to eat, who to hang out with and what to do with their free time. Coming back to your rules feels like they’re stepping back into childhood. It feels restrictive.
But you can design a framework that allows everyone’s needs to be met, giving the best chance for a successful visit. How do you do that? Consider these three ideas:
Let go of faulty expectations
We were excited for Tim to come home. We couldn’t wait to hear his stories, his struggles, his new adventures. So we freed up our schedules that first day in order to be available. But instead of hanging out with us, our son spent the whole day with his old friends.
We were disappointed and a little hurt. We’re paying for you to go to college — shouldn’t we get some quality time? We knew these thoughts weren’t fair, but they were real.
We also expected Tim to join family meals and keep normal hours.
But we hadn’t talked to him about any of that. We assumed he would want the same things. He had expectations, too — but we never thought to ask what they were or if they coincided with ours.
Move from expectations to expectancy
It’s better to have expectancy than expectations. Expectancy approaches the visit with a sense of adventure, letting go of expectations and simply saying, “Let’s watch and enjoy the journey. We don’t have to be in control.”
Here are some areas where expectancy can be effective:
- Don’t critique changes you see in attitude or choices. Make it safe for your kids to share their lives with you. No, you don’t have to agree with every choice they are making, but show them unconditional love.
- Give them space to talk about their life. I tell parents to ask mostly open-ended questions and spend most of their time listening to their kids. This opens the door for genuine conversation.
- Let your kids invite their friends to your house for meals or to just hang out. It keeps your son or daughter close by and keeps you from feeling competition with their friends.
Make a plan with them, not for them
The best time to talk about a framework for future visits is while they are still living at home. Don’t make it formal; just look for natural moments when you’re all relaxed and talking about the future. That makes it comfortable because you’re already talking about college.
Just say, “When you come back to visit during the holidays, what would you like that time to look like?” At first, don’t make suggestions or respond — just listen to what they say. They need to feel heard.
After they’ve gone, craft a short, simple letter/email/text with a suggested framework for their visit. Include as much of what they asked for as possible, and then add your own ideas. This helps to remind them of your discussion.
Don’t make those suggestions rigid, but ask for their ideas to make it work. Let them know you’re committed to making it a win-win for both of you, and you’re crafting a structure ahead of time so there are no surprises.
Put the essentials in the plan
Your communication might include suggestions like:
- “You can set your own hours — but please text if you’re coming home later than you said (so we won’t worry).”
- “You can use our car — but we hope you’ll be willing to drive your siblings around sometimes (with plenty of notice).”
- “You’ll need to do your own laundry.”
- “We’d like you to be home for dinner at least twice a week — and you can pick which days.”
You won’t get everything exactly the way you want it, and neither will your college kid. But you’ve built a framework together. You’ll be treating them like an adult, and they’ll be learning how to navigate adult relationships.
See your college kid for who they’re becoming
Each time Tim came home, we noticed significant changes. He thought differently, responded differently and acted differently. It was tempting to treat him the same way we did before he left because that’s how we knew him. But he wasn’t that child anymore. He had grown, was maturing more every day, and we needed to explore who he was becoming.
It’s best to look at each visit as a mini-course in the “new version” of your college kid. Be intentional about noticing what’s become important to them and then explore it with them. Be a student of what they are students of, and when they return to school, use that new information to shape your communication. Stay current with who they are, not who they were.
Think of them as adults because that’s what they’re becoming. Interact with them the way you would with your adult friends or co-workers. When they express opinions you disagree with, affirm your respect for them by listening completely to their position.
When they ask for advice on something, share your thoughts in a way that honors their ability to make good decisions: “I’ll tell you what I think if you’d like, but the choice is up to you. I’ll love and support you no matter what you decide.”
Make the relationship transition
The first few times college kids come home, it can be chaotic and frustrating. Conflict erupts in ways nobody expected. When they return to school, it’s bittersweet. You’re sad, but relieved.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When you approach these visits with intentionality, they will become an investment in your relationship with your kids. What happens on these visits sets the tone for how you and your kids relate to each other for the rest of your lives.
You’ve been the parent for years, with the goal of producing an adult. Yes, there are times you’ll still experience an empty fridge, a cluttered bedroom and a noisy house — but you can still find joy.